Anna Comnena was born in Constantinople, the
eldest daughter of an aristocratic general who later,
as Alexius I, became one of the greatest emperors
of Byzantium (the Eastern Roman Empire). Nevertheless,
Comnena spent the latter half of her life
in exile, where she wrote a remarkable history
book, perhaps the first written by a woman.
Anna was betrothed at age five to Constantine,
son of then-emperor Michael VII. Her royal ambitions
were thwarted, however, due to her husband’s
early death and the birth of a son and heir to her
parents, who had since become the imperial couple.
Anna enjoyed major influence in affairs of state
via her mother, the empress Irene. They conspired
together to obtain the succession to the throne for
Anna’s husband—in effect for Anna herself. After
the death in 1118 of her father, Alexius I, Anna
plotted with her second husband to overthrow her
brother, the new emperor John II.When the plot
was discovered, Anna’s properties were confiscated,
and she was banished from the capital for
life. She retired to the convent of Kecharitomene,
built by her mother, where she spent her remaining
35 years as a patron of scholarships and the arts as
well as the center of a literary and political faction
opposed to Emperor Manuel I. She died in exile,
becoming a nun on her deathbed.
Before her death, Anna composed a long history
of her father’s glorious career, the Alexiad,
covering the years from 1169 through his death.
Later translated into spoken Greek, her book
gained wide popularity. It is still celebrated for its
forceful, vivid writing; its thoughtful if biased
analysis; and its wealth of information on contemporary
literature, society, religion, internal politics,
and international affairs.
In her writing, Comnena tried to emulate the
language and spirit of classical Greece, whose pedigree
was as ancient and authentic as the Christian
scriptures. The title Alexiad was a deliberate tribute
to HOMER’s Iliad. Not that Anna had any tolerance
for rationalistic heresies. Her conservative outlook
found expression in her distaste for frivolity, astrology,
and gambling, and in the heroic language and
conventions she used for her protagonists.
The Alexiad is in some ways a traditional imperial
enconium, in which the emperor emerges as
wise, brave, and tirelessly devoted, the very model
of mesotes (the middle way). But Anna added
depth to her portrayals, even of her father, whom
she described as frequently depressed by temporary
setbacks or guilt. She gives even the villains
motives and recognizes their strong qualities.
Anna was a master of emotionally powerful descriptions,
both of people and events. Describing
John Italos, a leading philosopher denounced for
heresy, she wrote in the Alexiad:“His writings wore
a frown and in general reeked of bitterness, full of
dialectic aggression, and his tongue was loaded
with arguments. . . .The man was no more in control
of his hands than his tongue.”
Anna’s career shows that the social status of
women improved in Byzantium in her era, at least
among the elite. The characters she describes in
her writing provide further evidence. For example,
according to the Alexiad, her father appointed his
own mother, Anna Dalassena, as coruler. Anna
writes: “One might say that he was indeed the instrument
of her power—he was not emperor, for
all the decisions and ordinances of his mother satisfied
him, not merely as an obedient son, but as an
attentive listener to her instruction in the art of
Anna’s importance was twofold: Her book was
the first great product of a Greek renaissance that
lasted until the last days of the Byzantine Empire,
three centuries later, and it is the primary original
source of information for the era of the First Crusade.
An English Version of a Work by
The Alexiad of Anna Comnena. Translated by E. R. A.
Sewter. Baltimore: Penguin, 1969.
Works about Anna Comnena
Dalven, Rae. Anna Comnena. New York: Twayne,
Kazhdan, A. P. and Ann Wharton Epstein. Change in
Byzantine Culture in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries.
Berkeley: University of California Press,